4 Days in Gadget Paradise

2002 Consumer Electronics Show: We uncover the really cool stuff you'll want to own soon.

It's day two of the 2002 international Consumer Electronics Show, and I'm wired and exhausted. I've been sharing the Las Vegas Convention Center with 110,000 people from around the world, and it feels like I've bumped into every single one of them. It's the same thing every year, yet I always come back, for this is the only place you can get a peek at the latest stereos, TVs, PDAs, phones, and other devices about to hit the market.

The past few CES shows were all about wild prototypes and creative new products that had little chance of actually selling, but this year's event takes on a decidedly different tone. Not sure whether it's the economic downturn or the events of September 11, but there's not much flash on display (unlike the concurrent Detroit Auto Show, where hot concepts seemed to outnumber production vehicles). Instead, the focus is on technology just coming to market and variations of the tried and true. Case in point: The biggest new product category is the media center, an entertainment nerve center capable of distributing movies, music, and Internet anywhere in the home. Moxi Digital has the biggest buzz in this category, but Samsung, Pioneer, and Hewlett-Packard are showing similar boxes. In the same vein, Sampo, Sharp, and Philips have new ways of sharing photos via DVD players, TVs, and CD players.

There are 21 million square feet of exhibit space, 2,059 exhibitors, and more than 15,000 new gadgets here. And every space is taken, as I discover when I head into the convention center atrium, where I'm greeted by thumping beats from Moby, William Orbit, and other techno trendies blasting out of four speakers dangling from the ceiling. A gaggle of grey-and-black-clad models sashay down the runway, Toshiba SD audio players, Sanyo cellphones, and Compaq laptops in hand. It's one of three "Convergence" fashion shows happening here daily, designed to convince us that wearable tech is about to get real.

Pushing my way through the mostly male crowd of gawkers, I head to the main hall, where major exhibitors like Panasonic, Philips, and Toshiba have set up booths bigger than the average suburban yard. I'm immediately dazzled by Panasonic's floor-to-ceiling video wall covered with flat-screen TVs. Flat panels are another trend this year-they're everywhere. On Panasonic's stage, three fiddlers circle an actress as she extols the virtues of portable SD-compatible devices. Truth is, I don't need a song and dance to make me appreciate the SV-AV10 SD; it's a digital camcorder, still camera, audio player, and voice recorder in one. Nice.

Across the walkway I see a commotion at the Casio booth, which is showing watch prototypes that do things Dick Tracy never considered. There's a gaming watch, developed with Atari, and also the iR-a.k.a. the credit card watch-which stores all your payment information. Just point it at a compatible cash register and your purchase is automatically processed.

While notably sparse this year, Sanyo's booth has more prototypes (not to mention products available only in Japan) than any other. I love the Digital Memory Recorder (PD77R), a Walkman-size device with a built-in MP3 encoder that lets you make digital recordings directly from any source on the go. Another favorite is a mobile phone that features a dinner-mint-size display.

I move on to the half-naked bodies over at Sharp. Models with glitter-covered bellies are talking up televisions while synchronized swimmers and divers cavort inside a 7,000-gallon blue-tinted transparent pool. What this has to do with TVs, I'm not sure, but I want one of Sharp's new Aquos TVs anyway. Designed by Toshiyuki Kita, these LCD models are curvy and retro-futuristic, with silver-matte finishes and stands shaped like cartoon-character feet. Along with Samsung, Sharp has lowered the price of its 15-inch models to $1,199, down from $5,000 a year ago.

Leaving the big-name booths behind, I head to the two-story South Hall, home to small-time inventors, third-tier accessory salesmen, and obscure-import dealers. Here I run into Daryl Fazekas, who's invented the Guy's Keyboard, a $40 contraption aimed at hunt-and-peck typists (all the vowels are in the center). At the Hidden Camera Solutions booth, I check out the array of coffee makers, fans, and other household appliances embedded with hidden cameras. The strangest demonstration happens at Taser International. Several guys are encouraging a friend to get shot by the Advanced Taser M26, a consumer version of the notorious stun gun. A big guy confidently agrees. As he's zapped, he utters something inaudible, his eyes roll back, and he goes limp. The crowd roars.

At CES, folks, that's entertainment.

Bigelow

Las Vegas real-estate developer Robert Bigelow aims to build a commercial space station using inflatable module technology acquired from NASA. His company launched its first sub-scale test module into orbit on a Russian Dneper rocket last year and a second module in June. This second module lifted off with paying passengers, albeit only in the form of their snapshots whirling around the spacecraft's interior. Full-scale flights are scheduled for 2012.
bigelowaerospace.com
Courtesy Bigelow Aerospace

Rocketplane

The idea of a rocket-powered business jet started with Rocketplane. Then last August, it won NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract, which will award up to $207 million toward the development of a spacecraft that can service the International Space Station once the shuttles retire in 2010. Since then, the company's focus has shifted to the new program, and its original Rocketplane schedule has slipped by at least a year. The first test flights are now planned for 2009.
rocketplane.com
Courtesy Rocketplane

Armadillo

Armadillo Aerospace started as a hobby project of videogame designer John Carmack. Working after-hours in a machine shop in Dallas, Carmack and his crew have been building successively more powerful vertical-takeoff-and-landing rockets. Their eventual goal is to send one of their team members into space. Investors have recently taken an interest in the project, and Armadillo is favored to win this month's NASA-sponsored Lunar Lander Challenge. armadilloaerospace.comCourtesy Armadillo Aerospace

Virgin Galactic

The best-publicized of the commercial spaceflight firms is financing the construction of SpaceShipTwo at Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites. Scaled had been working under a media blackout until an explosion in July killed three workers and seriously injured three others. In spite of the tragedy, Virgin remains confident: The company recently announced that it will begin construction of the Norman Fosterâ€designed Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico, next year.
virgingalactic.com
Courtesy Jim Koepnick/Virgin Galactic

Blue Origin

Blue Origin is the most secretive of the private space companies. We know it's headed by Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos with R&D; facilities in Kent, Washington, and a launch site in West Texas. It plans to send passengers into suborbital space in completely automated rockets that will take off and land on their tails. In January the world caught a tantalizing glimpse of a prototype flight, but only because the company posted a few photos and videos on its Web site in an effort to recruit engineers.
blueorigin.com
Courtesy Blue Origin